One year in: An interview with EYN president Joel S. Billi




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by Zakariya Musa

Joel Stephen Billi was elected president of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and assumed his duties on May 3, 2016, alongside other principal officers of the church. He came into leadership at a time when the church was in a state of disarray following the incessant attacks on its members by insurgents. After spending one year in office, this interview was conducted to take stock of his stewardship as the leader of the church at such a hard time in the history of EYN. Here are excerpts from the interview:

EYN president Joel S. Billi
Photo by Zakariya Musa

EYN president Joel S. Billi

Question: Can you briefly tell us how the going has been so far, what are your experiences, expectations, and challenges?

Answer: Glory is to God, and thank you for organizing the interview. It is a rare privilege to share our experiences. I want to start by thanking God and acknowledging his sovereignty over our lives, and for seeing us through this one year of service.

The journey so far has been so good, despite some ups and downs. We are making some achievements, but not without some challenges.

EYN Headquarters was relocated to the Annex Headquarters in Jos, Plateau State, when the insurgents attacked Kwarhi. We faced the challenge of relocating back to Kwarhi. It was a hard decision to take, but we just had to do it so that we could come closer to the majority of our members and share in their pains. We equally had to embark on a tour of the church across the country, to sympathize with our displaced members and those who lost their beloved ones and properties.

Q: What is the state of the church now?

A: Glory to God, EYN is coming out of the devastation gradually. The reason why we embarked on the nationwide tour was simply to see for ourselves the situation of our members, how they were faring, and to assess the level of damages meted on the members. The visit also was to the most affected areas, to give them some encouragement, comfort, and to revive their hope by informing them that the challenges are not the end of the world for them. Rather, God in his infinite mercy will heal and revive the church.

On the state of the church now, I am not being ungrateful to God but EYN is yet to recover from the devastation. For example, our people in Gwoza and its surroundings, including the four districts behind the Gwoza hills, are still displaced. We are not talking of one local congregation let alone a district--four organized districts around Gwoza are still at large. I said at large in the sense that they are displaced in different Internally Displaced Persons’ (IDP) camps. While the majority of them are in Cameroon, many children and a few parents are in Benin, in Edo State. Also many others are in Adamawa, Nasarawa, Lagos, and the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja. Also a very good number of them are in Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. There is hardly any part of this country that you don’t find our people; they are scattered all over the country and beyond.

So in times of restoration, while we thank God for everything, we thank the Nigerian security agencies such the military, police, and the local vigilantes who are working tirelessly to restore peace in the northeast for the safe return of our members.

At the height of the insurgency, there were only 7 functional church districts out of the 50, but now we have over 50 church districts. Pretty soon, it is our hope that the areas mentioned earlier would come back as the security situation improves. This would also pave the way for the process of rebuilding houses and churches in most of the affected areas.

Unfortunately, as we speak, we could not visit any part of Gwoza because of the insecurity situation in the area. We are still praying and hoping that as soon as the security situation improves, we shall visit them. Just as the Bible says, if 1 sheep got missed, the shepherd will leave the 99 to go and look for the 1 sheep. I want to assure you that EYN will sing “Hallelujah” and “Jubilate” when all its members and churches are recaptured back from the hands of the insurgents.

Q: There are some EYN staff who are either displaced or serving without a salary for more than a year, for example staff of the Integrated Community Based Development Program and the Literacy Program who are mostly not clergy. Is there any effort to help such staff?

A: Yes, it’s disheartening to hear that some workers are stranded and have not been paid salaries for over a year. We are doing everything possible to see that nobody is laid off and their salaries are paid. I think most of the departments and institutions were under pressure and were thinking of downsizing their staff strength. But as leaders, it pricks our hearts if we hear of any intention to lay off or downsize the staff--it’s never a good news.

So as long as someone has interest to have any kind of job, either with the church, private sectors, or with the government, we are strongly supporting them. We are praying that God will open doors and windows of heaven to give us opportunities, so that we engage them.

All the affected staff had been assisted in one way or the other. We are therefore calling on all well-meaning members of the church to support the efforts of the leadership to improve the Rural Health, Community Development, Rural Development and Agriculture programs of the church as that will open more doors of employment for our teeming youth.

Q: Borno State government had rebuilt a few of the churches destroyed by the insurgents which include EYN churches. What is your take on this?

A: We must be grateful to the executive governor of Borno State for demonstrating a gentleman’s attitude, for doing what ordinarily a Muslim governor would not do for the church. From all indications, Governor Kashim Shetima is a gentleman. He is a man we know. He may have his weaknesses, but for us as a church, if he has built or renovated one church EYN remains grateful for the gesture.

The Borno State government has renovated and erected some churches under the first phase of the reconstruction project at a cost of over N100,000,000 [Naira, the Nigerian currency]. Currently, the state government has commenced phase II and has selected some churches in Hawul and Askira Uba Local Government Areas. They have already mobilized the site, and have started work especially in Shaffa, Tashan Alade, and other places whiere EYN is the major beneficiary with more than 95 percent [of the churches]. I will send a delegation from the EYN Headquarters to ascertain the level of the projects, after which the leadership will pay a thank you visit to Governor Kashim Shetima for the good work he is doing. We shall also request him to do same for Gwoza and Chibok areas after they have been fully recaptured [from the insurgents].

Q: You broke the good news of the rebuilding of 20 EYN churches by the Church of the Brethren in the USA. Can you shade more light on how you arrived at the number of 20 local churches?

A: Yes, we would like to thank our brother Jay Wittmeyer, executive director of Global Mission and Service, who initiated the move for rebuilding churches in the northeast. Some other individuals and churches have equally indicated interest to support this noble idea. I must confess that we didn’t send them the list of the 20 churches on time, but he kept on following up. Only recently, we sent the list and they [the Global Mission office] have sent the money for the project to commence.

Let me make it clear that they sent $110, 000 for phase I, and promised to send more as time goes on. As these monies are disbursed, we shall be sending them comprehensive reports on the utilization of the funds. For the next phase, we know more funds are coming. This would go a long way in assisting our smaller churches to have a place of worship again.

Part of the money (about $10,000) was used to complete the new EYN Headquarters Office Complex, out of which $250 was used for hosting the workcampers who came from US to help reconstruct the office complex. Also the workcampers alongside EYN had constructed a church auditorium at Pegi, near Kuje, in the Federal Capital Territory of Abuja.

Currently, a workcamp is going on at the Brethren College Chinka for the construction of a hostel accommodation with capacity of about 200 students. We have selected a few affected churches in Mubi, Michika, Hawul, and Askira Uba Local Government Areas. There was no church selected from Chibok and Gwoza areas because of the security challenges in these two areas. If more money comes, we will try to touch other areas.

Q: Any support received so far from the Federal Government. and what call do you have for them on the situation of our church?

A: Our mission partners are doing a good job, likewise the Borno State government, but from the Federal Government of Nigeria--despite the establishment of the Presidential Initiative for the North East--we are yet to receive any support. We are therefore calling on the Federal Government of Nigeria and especially the Presidential Initiative for North East to see that EYN is given adequate support. We are not dictating to them what they are to do for us, but to inform them that EYN is the worst hit church. We are calling on the Federal Government and other international NGOs to help in rebuilding our churches, members’ houses, and business places. It shall be a gross oversight if the government does not come to the aid of EYN, and that would be too shocking to any Nigerian to hear. We have lost a lot of lives, and properties worth millions of Naira, and we are yet to recover and return back to our base.

Q: Do we have the exact number of the destroyed churches and members so far?

A: This is the serious challenge we are facing. I have discussed this with the EYN General Secretary on the need to have the actual figures. One of the major challenges we have is most of the members are displaced, and it becomes difficult to get accurate data. I want to assure you that the information will be available in no distant time.

Q: What is your message to our church members?

A: I urge you to stick to your faith in Christ Jesus more than ever before, for the days are evil and turning to be more evil than ever before. To our young stars, you need to put Jesus first on your agenda, and other things will follow. Never relent in your studies, because education is the bedrock of every human development. You cannot make any reasonable achievement, gainfully employed or engaged in any gainful business if you are not well educated. This is my clarion call to all our youths: to be creative and be employers of labor by engaging in different trades and skilled work.
 
And to my fellow colleagues at the EYN Headquarters, I congratulate you for the successful one year in office. To other colleagues at the Headquarters, districts, and congregations, I crave your indulgence for more support and team work more than ever before, so that we can serve our God and his people together.

-- Zakariya Musa serves on the communications staff of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). This is excerpted from an interview that first appeared in the EYN magazine.

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